This article features in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

Oppressive regimes have always been threatened by art. It is visceral communication, delivering a message and a mood in an instant. It sustains culture, binds society together, and gives it an identity outside of state control. Art can reflect the world of the viewer back at them with more clarity. It can kindle revolution. 

The Arab Spring was monumental, and not just in scale; young people were at the vanguard of the movement, so youth culture had a significant influence on the protests. The anthems of the Arab uprisings were rap and rock tracks, and the visual language was graffiti and amateur documentary films, mediated by the internet and social media. The revolutionary generation were multicultural, multilingual, educated and alienated, and the rift between them and the dominant patriarchal cultures of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries had been growing since the 1990s. Tensions surrounded poverty, corruption, police brutality, the concentration of wealth and power among a political elite, systemic human rights abuses, and the suppression of political opposition. The cultural dislocation came to a head in December 2010, when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at the confiscation of his goods by an official. Protests catalysed by this event stretched across the Arab world, ultimately resulting in the toppling of four governments, four civil wars, and a death toll of over 60,000. 

Before the Arab Spring, the region had a rich but fraught relationship with the arts. Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria were patron states with strong links to the Western art world. Islam furthered calligraphy, poetry and architecture. Protest art was also spearheaded by Palestinian citizens of Israel, with multiple resistance theatres pioneering political Arab rap, and protest graffiti on the walls of the West Bank and Gaza. However religion and conservatism have stunted the arts. Some societies self-police, with Islamic extremists attacking artists considered to be anti-Islamic, such as with the 1994 assault on Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, and there have been varying degrees of censorship enforced by different governments. The arts in the MENA region have never achieved the ‘safe space’ character of western art scenes, which makes producing art all the more revolutionary of an act. 

The Arab Spring demonstrated the inextricable link between protest and art. In Tahrir Square (Martyr Square), the heart of the Egyptian revolution, each crackdown produced more material, and more art. Street artist Amor Eletrebi enlisted local residents and children to help repaint carcasses of burned out military vehicles with vibrant, positive images. Ashraf Foda took stones thrown at activists by police and had the activists sign them, creating irrefutable proof of the day’s events. Protest is a performative act, so art during a revolution is self-sustaining. 

Certain types of art were more suited to a revolutionary environment than others. The institutions of ‘high art’ were unsuitable: undemocratic and elitist, not to mention unsafe to visit in person in more volatile areas. Rather, the prevailing art forms of the uprisings were those of the people. Youth culture was already organised around musical subcultures, and technology meant production and distribution was cheap, easy, independent of institutions, anarchist and revolutionary. Rap music was particularly suited, already well-established in the region, and political in its origins. One of the most well-known exports was ‘the anthem of the Jasmine revolution’, Tunisian rapper El Général’s Rais Lebled (Head of State), released a week before Bouazizi’s death. Precisely because he was an amateur rapper, his lyrics were easy to learn, to then chant at riot police in unison. Egyptian hard rock artist Ramy Essam wrote his most

influential song, Ihral, in Tahrir Square during the 25 January Revolution, basing it on the chants and rhythm of the protesters and played it repeatedly in the square for weeks. Huge crowds would turn out to see him. Here, art and protest are indistinguishable. 

Graffiti is fundamentally political, as it is rarely legal. Where there is no space in society for other forms of political opposition, graffiti can make a point publicly heard. It is anonymous and boisterous; the perfect medium for revolutionary art. It also interacts with MENA’s history of calligraphy and poetry (see Tunisian artist eL Seed), producing powerful written work, though image has been important too. Like music, graffiti is easily reproduced: in 2011, the phrase ‘be with the revolution’ appeared region-wide. Graffiti demarcates space as being outside of government control, undermining a state’s sense of public security. When in 2012 the ‘Martyr’s wall’ in Cairo was painted over, it meant the balance of power shifting back to the state. Indeed, the trigger for the Syrian revolution was the arrest and torture of a group of children for writing anti-government slogans on their school walls. 

The uprising changed the artistic landscape, focusing the region’s potential artistic output, but certain influential factors recur all the same. Egypt’s government is squeezing out its graffiti artists, and new media laws with hefty sentences restrict online activity. Despite being a household name just after the revolution, Ramy Essam can no longer perform in his own country. El Général abandoned the movement for the rising tide of islamism in Tunisia, and the governments of Morocco and Bahrain began sponsoring potential threats like Don Bigg and Fraire, essentially making them court rappers. Inside the borders, history repeats itself, whilst outside the region, Arab art sells. Societies across the MENA region are slowly rebuilding themselves, but in many countries their elites are on trial, in exile or in hostile governments, so money for art patronage is scarce. Instead, the scene is increasingly located in the Gulf states, where the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017, and Dubai Art Week flourishes. The people are still defiant, and whilst ‘high art’ moves east, experimental theatre flourishes in Morocco, as does Tunisian rap and Lybian literature. Egyptian street artists paint all over the world, and the revolution keeps on.

By Anna Rabinowitz

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